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Salt Lake County and U.S. Forest Service partner to revamp Wasatch's tri-canyon trails

Apr 05, 2024 01:02PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Salt Lake County seeks public input on trails in Big, Little and Millcreek canyons. (Photo courtesy of Salt Lake County)

Nestled in the rugged terrain of Utah's Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, the tri-canyon area—a collective term for the Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood and Millcreek canyons—has long been a sanctuary for nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers. Boasting over 170 miles of trails, three wilderness areas, and four recognized ski resorts, this area annually attracts more than 3 million visitors seeking the solace and excitement of the great outdoors. However, this popularity has not come without its challenges, prompting local authorities and the federal government to take action.

In a collaborative effort, Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation and the U.S. Forest Service have developed the Tri-Canyon Trails Plan, an ambitious proposal aiming to balance the increasing demand for outdoor recreation with the pressing need for environmental preservation. The initiative seeks to "protect our watershed and natural resources while providing diverse recreation opportunities," highlighting a dual commitment to ecological integrity and public enjoyment.

The planning process, which began in earnest in 2020, has been characterized by its emphasis on community engagement and data-driven analysis. Through a comprehensive series of trail inventories and public listening sessions, organizers have gathered essential insights into the patterns and preferences of canyon visitors. This input has been instrumental in shaping a draft plan that proposes sweeping improvements to trailheads and trails, alongside innovative strategies to mitigate environmental impact and enhance the overall visitor experience.

At the core of the plan are three guiding principles focused on the environment, visitor experience and infrastructure. These principles are designed to guide the development of the tri-canyons in a way that "protects watersheds and ecosystems...while supporting visitor needs." Among the notable proposals are the reclassification of trailheads into major, minor and primitive categories, tailored to accommodate varying levels of use while minimizing ecological footprints. Additionally, the introduction of concentrated use trails and connectors aims to replace less sustainable paths, enhancing both accessibility and environmental stewardship.

Addressing the issue of visitor conflict and accommodating the increasing interest in e-bikes are also central components of the plan. Strategies to "utilize a spectrum of strategies including education, recommendations, and regulations" are proposed to manage these emerging challenges. Furthermore, the plan envisions ski resorts as key partners in offering unique summer recreational opportunities, complementing the area's natural attractions.

With winter sports growing in popularity, the plan also includes initiatives aimed at expanding access to and the quality of winter recreation. Efforts to "provide designated parking, trailheads, bathrooms" and "investigate winter recreation opportunities" are intended to make the tri-canyons a year-round destination for outdoor enthusiasts. These measures underscore the plan’s intention of sustaining visitor engagement throughout all seasons.

According to the plan, “The Forest Service holds the final decision-making authority in this planning process. Both Salt Lake County and the Town of Brighton are working closely with the Forest Service so they may adopt sections of this plan that fall within their boundaries.” 

Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation will incorporate this plan as a chapter in their Regional Trails Master Plan. The Forest Service will conduct environmental review of the plan in phases and coordinate implementation with local governments, partners and stakeholders.

There are several concurrent planning processes that impact recreation in the tri-canyon area: Recreation Fee Proposal (REA), Federal Lands Access Program—Upper Mill Creek (FLAP), Little Cottonwood Canyon—Environmental Impact Statement (Gondola B). These separate planning processes will be taken into account where there is overlap—primarily at trailheads.

The financing of the Salt Lake Ranger District's trails program for the tri-canyon area will harness a diverse mix of funding sources to ensure the successful implementation and maintenance of the trail network. Federal allocations, contributions from Salt Lake County, partnership dollars, recreation and restoration grants, and volunteer labor are all pivotal to the project's financial strategy. The adoption of a comprehensive trails’ masterplan is anticipated to not only bolster funding opportunities but also enhance the efficiency of resource use. This collaborative and multisourced approach underscores the commitment to both the expansion and sustainable management of the area's valued natural resources.

The final plan will be presented in the fall. Public input can be submitted online at λ